Up There

Up There is one of those things that’s been linked to like crazy across Twitter and most of the sites I read, but I’d not got around to watching it. I find that with a lot of online video, I mark it to watch later when I’ve a bit of time to devote to it and then, well, don’t get around to it. So, if you’re like me and haven’t seen this yet, I do recommend watching it. It’s only 12 minutes, very well composed and edited and really gives you an insight into the work of people who hand paint signs and adverts on the sides of buildings. It’s a craft that (not surprisingly) is dying out, but one that can be kept alive by commissions from a few enlightened companies and agencies. The film was sponsored by Stella Artois who, as JJ from Graphicology points out, are producing more narrative-based advertising lately. Kudos to them for this, I’ve a lot more respect for Stella Artois the company now. Less said about the lager.



Stills from Up There. Go and watch it at Vimeo.

AlphabetVille

Another link to the ever-inspiring The Art of Hand Lettering, this script is beautiful. I love the composition and the flow of the letterforms, the even colour across the lettering takes my breath away, and it was all done by hand, late at night. I guess that’s the sign of an expert, no? Lovely. Go and take a look at more of his work.

On Turning The Page

I’ve been thinking about pages, print and scrolling for a while, mainly because I’m a designer and it’s part of my job, but also (I have to admit) because I quite fancy getting an e-reader of some kind. I’ll say right now I’m not going to write about any particular gadget, nor do I care which is best, which is more open, which is morally better, which one is approved by the People’s Front of Judea or the Judean People’s Front or whatever, right now I’m just thinking about one particular aspect of the technology: the page metaphor.

I’m writing this with full knowledge that there are some truly excellent articles out there about this very subject, this one in particular, which you might want to read too. Thing is, while people are talking about digital books, the talk is about the printing, transport and warehousing costs and trees it’ll save, and there’ve only been a few scant mentions of how the form of your everyday novel or reference book could change. Any discussion on form has been about the premium-quality books, the Alice for iPad style remakings, the ones that make new and playful uses of the page-as-screen, and there will be some truly wonderful digital books made, we know there will. However, it’s just taken as read that for all the other books that a bunch of text will be squeezed into an arbitrary set of pages of arbitrary size, like making sausages out of text. We’re not doing these books justice with this tired old page metaphor.

What’s so good about pages?

There are some functional and aesthetic reasons we might like to use pages for a long text. The main functional one that I can see is that we get a handy idea from pages where we are — they are numbered. To return to the book later we need only remember a single number and we can find that page again and carry on where we left off. That’s a great idea, but it breaks, and breaks badly if you were to change the text size, or to carry on reading on one device from where you left off on another. I think as these are two big advantages of digital books, we can’t easily ignore them. Fortunately placeholding is pretty easy on a digital book. It simply remembers where you were and loads the book up at that point.

Yes, I know my metaphor has holes in it, like a huge Hampton Court Palace shaped one. Just bear with me, OK?

So, what about aesthetic reasons? Well, here I like to compare it to architecture, specifically building materials. In years past, and here I’ll emphasise I’m assuming quite an early sensibility, if you built your house with cut and dressed stone, it marked you out as being a pretty wealthy and (presumably) classy individual. If you built your house out of brick, it just said you had a house made of brick. It might be a nice house, but it’s a house made of brick. Nothing wrong with that, you understand, but hey, it’s not stone, and brick was something associated with industry, with commerce and with houses built on a massive scale for factory workers. So houses were built out of brick and then given a coating of render which was then scored and moulded to look like stone. It didn’t really fool anyone, so while it didn’t mark you out as wealthy, you could at least appear to be classy, and that’s important to a lot of people.

And so to books. The equivalent in my metaphor of a stone house is an actual professionally set, printed and bound dead-tree book. They’re the kind of book that is made to store Great Works; the dictionaries, philosophies, histories, plays, religious texts, the physical manifestation of all human knowledge that can be set on a page. No wonder people place great store in the idea of a printed book, for the past couple of centuries they’ve been the acme of Stuff That’s Worth Keeping. Of course, now we have perfect-bound (ha!) books produced in the millions and I don’t think even I could be accused of snobbery in saying that most of them are from the category of Tedious Drivel than Great Work, but there you go, we still have this idea that printed books are so very special, better than any other medium.


Your typical red brick terraces. Moss side, photo by Gene Hunt.

So, what of the brick house in my belaboured Victorian metaphor? This, to me, is a scrolling page of text on a screen — pretty much the kind you’re reading right now, and do on any website. Yes, it’s called a web page but it is at least a true digital page in that it can be any length, any width and be as static or dynamic as you want. It is a product of the digital age, and while the code we use to describe its content may still be inadequate and subject to billion-dollar playground fights it does the job pretty well. The reason I liken it to the brick house is that there’s nothing really wrong with it but it hasn’t the cachet, it’s associated with the mass-produced red brick terraced house in some mill town somewhere — it’s commercial, it hasn’t the sense of permanence, it’s just a this’ll do commercial pragmatism about it. Of course, just as there are astoundingly beautiful brick buildings there are beautiful web pages, but it’s all about how these things are commonly associated in people’s minds.

And so to our prettified house. The brick one with the rendering on the outside made to look like stone. It can be built nearly as cheaply and quickly as a plain brick house, but it just looks so much better (well, more fashionable) and will sell for a load more cash. It’s got the association of quality in people’s minds but very little of the cost. And here we find the metaphorical equivalent of nearly every damn e-reader on the market right now. Loaded with serif fonts because printed books use serif fonts, sepia-toned backgrounds because printed books go a bit brown with age, with justified text because… and yes, here we get to it. Justified text! For crying out loud. They’re justifying text on a small screen with such an appallingly crap set of algorithms that sometimes it’s like looking at two lists of words against opposite margins — sometimes there might be a few words floating about in the middle somewhere but in all cases the reading experience is dreadful. I’ve only heard of one app that has a decent algorithm for hyphenation and justification, but even so I think the easiest (and given the size of the screen, the best) option for justification is a setting called OFF. For a particular erudite complaint about all this, check out Stephen Coles’ article for the FontFeed.


Early Edition, Eucalyptus and iReading Classics.

Then we get to the real fake-Georgian pediment over the front door, the overly-shiny brassy door furniture, the PVC window frames, something that infests reading software rather than dedicated e-reader hardware (but is no less annoying for it): yes, it’s the page turn animation. Oh how these software producers love their page turn animations. They might not make a big deal about their font selection, their crappy justification algorithms or even the number of books you can buy through their store, but they will always make a great big bloody feature of their sodding page turns, even the app I pointed to above. Even if an app doesn’t have these damn things, you get the impression they’re working on adding them. In a book, an actual dead-tree book, you don’t notice turning the page because it’s just part of what a book is. That’s how you get to the next bit of text. The whole idea of pages bound like that is an artifact of a particular printing technology — it’s the nature of the delivery medium, not the message. So when we have a digital book, we’re using technology that has its own set of conventions, its own restrictions and its own freedoms, and every bit of digital technology has some means of moving through any arbitrary content: a keyboard has cursor keys, page up and page down keys, a mouse has a scroll wheel, laptops have trackpads with scroll areas, and smartphones have touchscreens, joysticks or D-pads. But no. Those aren’t good enough. They’re not booky enough. You’re going to be reading Ullysses on this thing, War and Peace, The Illiad with this thing for crying out loud! You can’t sully things like that with a scroll wheel! You’re supposed to be imagining reverentially turning the thick, musty, ancient pages in some great national library somewhere, worshipping at the altar of Knowledge! Never mind the story! Never mind leaving you free to just read! No, every 250 words, perform the gesture, watch the animation!

Just let me scroll, please? I’ve been reading stuff off the screen seriously for what, 15 years? More? Scrolling is fine, you know.

I guess you could assume I’m not a fan of the current state of e-reading software. I hold out a lot of hope for it though. I think if the Instapaper (say) people went and made a full e-book reader I’d be very happy indeed. Of course, there may well be an absolutely blindingly-good bit of software out there that was made by someone who cares about simply reading but I don’t know of it — I assume someone will write one eventually. For iPad/iPhone please. If you know of one, please do let me know.

If you have an opinion on iPad/iPhone/Apple please don’t let me know it, I’ve heard enough about it to last a lifetime already. Sorry, and thanks.

ITC Garamond

Michael Bierut hates ITC Garamond. I wouldn’t normally link to something like this, but unusually for Design Observer there are a couple of actual laugh-out-loud moments in the article, including this gem:

The most distinctive element of the typeface is its enormous lower-case x-height. In theory this improves its legibilty, but only in the same way that dog poop’s creamy consistency in theory should make it more edible.Michael Bierut

Go and have a read of the whole thing. It’s good to see an actual taste-based critique on something for a change. I’m a big supporter of backing up your statements with facts or reasoned arguments, but from time to time we’re all entitled to a bit of plain old raw opinion. And if you’d like to make up your own mind (why wouldn’t you?), here’s a sample of ITC Garamond Light:


Sample text from FontShop and Linotype.

The Concrete Quarterly

It’s been around for millennia, but concrete is a building material that pretty much defines the architecture of the modern era. The reconstruction efforts after the second world war really got the world interested in concrete in a big way — it allowed for rapid, economical construction of vast numbers of apartments, factories, malls, roads and more, and made tall buildings commonplace.

Of course, while not exactly a new building material, the uses we put it to often were. We know all too well the grey, crumbling monoliths, the remains of ill-conceived and badly built projects blighting our cities and towns, but too rarely do people celebrate the truly wonderful concrete buildings we have — from cathedrals to offices, shops and homes to soaring bridges, roads and basic utilitarian buildings, it’s an incredibly flexible and often beautiful building material. This is, I guess, what the Concrete Quarterly was designed to highlight. I’ve only read some of the earlier editions, but right from the first issue it talks of the diversity of uses of concrete; bridges, home developments and motorways all built with the stuff. Perhaps this variety is what’s influenced the design of the magazine over the years. Not until the 60s does it gain any kind of design consistency — in the 50s barely three or four editions are alike. Not that that’s really a bad thing, as some of the early covers are just gorgeous:


Incredibly lovely

I was browsing through wondering if I could spot any familiar projects, and lo, in the Winter 1962 issue there’s a cover article on Coventry Cathedral, one of my favourite buildings, which I’ve written about before here.


I think this was the first year with all four issues alike. That’s Coventry Cathedral on Issue 55.

Even within the same issue the headline styles vary considerably, and sometimes even the body type too. It makes for a slightly odd effect, but on the whole I think it works — it all ends up being rather charming. This one is wonderful on so many levels. Belgian Roads! What a subject!

It’s worth having a look through the archives as there are many beautiful photos in there. I was delighted to see some photos of Liverpool Cathedral, which I visited many years ago and loved right away — I gather it’s not really all that popular locally but I think it’s great. Perhaps I just like anything with lots of stained glass in it.


The Stilfontein Mine (1952), Liverpool Cathedral (1967) and Coventry Cathedral (1962)

Kineda

I was reading the latest post on The Art of Hand Lettering earlier and found the stages in the process fascinating, in that I preferred some of the sketches to the end result. I do really like the final logo, but there was something about one of the on-screen workings of the logo that I thought really brought the word alive — it’s the one in the detail I cropped from the article at the bottom right below. There’s something really playful about it, like the rest of the word is being bounced along by the K. Still, that’s my impression and it most likely wasn’t the client’s intention — and that’s the difference between doing stuff for yourself and doing stuff for paying clients!

Handyman’s Modern Manuals

I was having a look through this collection of Popular Science editions on Google Books, and saw this beautiful advertising illustration. Naturally I’ve traced it, but the original ticks so many boxes — it’s hand-drawn, it has a strong sense of dimension, leaping out of the page at you, and the lettering on the banner and especially the price roundel is, like the illustration as a whole, beautifully composed.


My tracing — the detail circle is my own addition, I’d love to see the front of this book properly.

The arrangement of books creates a lovely dance across the page — it’s a shame the type composition of the rest of the advert, while competently done, doesn’t have as much flair. I’d like to know who the illustrator was, and what the front of the books really looked like — I’m fascinated by that little ship illustration and would love to see the whole thing properly. In fact, what are the books like? In an earlier advert there was a hint at some of the cover illustrations, but I’d like to see the ‘real thing’. Anyone out there got some?

Update: Jane of Shelf Appeal sent me a link to this auction on eBay, with a picture of the book. Thanks!

Penmanship of The XVI, XVII & XVIIIth Centuries

I’m sure this set of Google Books scans has gone round the design sites and twitter before, but I’ve only just recently come across it. Pretty much everything in here is beautiful and wonderful to just browse through, but if you’re a student of lettering and calligraphy (and of course, of type) then you’ll find it pretty useful too.

Personally I’ve mixed feelings about swashes and decorative initials, they look gorgeous but rarely seem appropriate to anything except for, well, historical contexts like the ones in this book. Often when I see them I think they look forced — shoved in there because they exist rather than because they add to the design or layout — It’s a real shame because I guess I’m not alone in really wanting to have a project that just calls out for a damn good swash, and yet when I do I start to fret that it’s just starry-eyed wishful thinking overruling good sense (and taste). It could be that I worry too much and should just get the pen out and start slashing away at the page with ink for the hell of it. Well, maybe not slashing as such, but when you look at some of these you get a real sense of the possibilities of drama and enthusiasm; the chance to create some really playful and exciting stuff. Wonderful:

Irina Vinnik

I was looking through this particularly linkbaity article and found the beautiful piece below, Alphabet, by Irina Vinnik. It really reminds me of a couple of books of fables and fairytales I had as a kid — they all had beautifully ornamented capitals at the start of each story and I was completely fascinated by them. I did trace quite a few and spent rather a lot of time trying to draw my own. Sadly I’ve not got any of those early attempts so I can’t see if they were any good or not, but it did get me into a long and happy habit of tracing and redrawing letters and lettering which has been incredibly useful throughout my career. Funny thing with kids, I’ve noticed with friends of mine who have children that shovelling tons and tons of information at them and seeing what sticks seems to be a pretty good strategy. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Make More Money

I saw this a couple of weeks ago and I reminded myself of it with my look-at-me post, then didn’t get around to finish writing about it. I really like Kenn Munk‘s designs, they’ve got a real historical feel to them, and remind me of Civil War-era state and privately-issued money in the US. I like the idea of using stamps to print money yourself — I’d love to have a go. I think the only thing I’d suggest adding is a bit of red somewhere, like a serial number or something, but that might just be because I like black and red in print.